Readers in Exile: The Elsewheres of Andre Aciman

Picture of the ruins of ancient Rome.

The psychological temporizer–who defers, denies, disperses the present, who accesses time (life, if you wish) so obliquely and in such roundabout ways and gives the present so provisional and tenuous a status that the present, insofar as such a thing is conceivable, ceases to exist, or, to be more accurate, does not count … He forfeits the present because it’s not what he wants it to be, because he may not know what to do with it, because he wants something else, because he is working or holding out for something better … He is other than who he is because his ‘timing’ is not like everyone else’s.

–André Aciman, Alibis

André Aciman, novelist, essayist, and professor, has produced a body of work obsessed with exile. It’s no wonder; Aciman grew up a Sephardic Jew in Alexandria for the first 14 years of his life. Following Israel’s invasion of Egypt, and Egypt’s subsequent abridgment of Jewish civil liberties and seizure of Jewish businesses, the family was forced to leave for Italy. After three years in Rome, Aciman moved to New York with his parents and brother. Much of his writing is animated by memories of these places, their colors and sounds reverberating endlessly in Aciman’s mind.

So, too, do his characters end up in lands they aren’t from, among people they don’t know, in moods they don’t quite recognize or understand. His first and best novel, Call Me By Your Name, follows Elio, a 17-year old boy on vacation with his family in Italy who is surprised to find himself drawn irresistibly to the family’s male houseguest. Aciman’s second, Eight White Nights, tracks the slow-burn romance of two neurotic New Yorkers who meet one night at a party and spend the next week dancing around one other, never quite meeting on the same emotional plane, ruthlessly dissecting each moment spent together. And his third, Harvard Square, features an immigrant student from Alexandria studying for his Ph.D. in literature at Harvard, who befriends a Tunisian taxi driver for one summer; once the school year begins, each retreats to his particular exile. All three protagonists feel themselves to be outsiders, in a deeper sense than their social identities alone suggest. Each is perched in his respective way on the edge of society, watching its currents flow by, unable to dive in fully.

Aciman’s essays deal more explicitly with this quality of feeling and being other than where and how one is, especially those found in his second collection, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere. “Elsewhere” is the apt word to describe Aciman’s condition, and that of his ideal reader. An essentially perfect volume, Alibis explores the phenomenon of longing infinitely displaced—longing for lives not lived, past lovers, abandoned cities—longing that points ultimately to the fact of itself, revels, in fact, in its own sensuous richness and poignancy. Aciman inhabits an agonizingly evocative world, where the merest shift in the air conjures an unending stream of associations and memories that give rise to this longing. In its thrall, Aciman departs from the present entirely. He is never where he is. He remembers remembering, he looks back to looking ahead, looks ahead to looking back; nothing is solid, merely shadows of shadows. Everything is done in memory of something else. Nothing is seen, but rather imagined. The idea of a thing is more real than the thing itself.

The written word makes an optimal channel for Aciman’s elsewhere-ness: for who more than a reader accesses life from a remove? The temporizing disposition that Aciman portrays fits the reader to a T—not all readers, perhaps, but a prominent strain, a species of which I count myself a member. The overlap between readers and temporizers is this: we are not really here. The difference is that the reader, perhaps, is more conscious of her separation from the normal course of everyday life.

You assume you are not quite like others and that to understand others, to be with others, to love others, and to be loved by them, you need to think other thoughts than the ones that come naturally. To be with others you must be the opposite of who you are; to read others, you must read the opposite of what you see; to be somewhere, you must suspect you are or could be elsewhere.

The affinity, I surmise, grows up in two directions. Temporizers form natural readers; books meet their desire to access other times and places, and assuage their sense of ill-belonging in their own. And readers gain awareness of various elsewheres which exist congruent and contemporaneous with their own, which loses a measure of force in turn. One’s age comes to seem the tiny, arbitrary fulcrum against which balance the enormous weights of past and future. One’s personal history reaches out to the lives of others, known or unknown. In the essay “Intimacy,” Aciman revisits Rome, temporary home of his childhood, and finds his expectation of profundity frustrated:

[M]y love for Rome … was perhaps no more than my love for a might-be life born from a story Joyce had penned during his hapless stay in Rome, thinking of his half-read, half-remembered Dublin … What roundabouts, though, for what others feel so easily. Roundabout love, roundabout intimacy, roundabout truths.

See the degrees of remove. Aciman experiences Rome through a story by Joyce, written while Joyce sojourned in Rome, based on Joyce’s memories of Dublin. But note, also, that Aciman does not question the reality of his love for the eternal city, based on art and suggestion and false memory though it be. In fact, each link in the chain of association heightens its significance. Aciman’s essays and fiction, however nostalgic, wistful, even bleak, are shot through with a depth of feeling that vibrates in every sentence. His search for meaning never founders, but it emits sparks at unexpected junctures—sparks which illuminate the corners of his own mind. So, too, for the reader who adventures in the infinite elsewheres of books. She arrives at the world through Aciman’s “roundabouts,” but the important fact is that she arrives, over and over, and each time the light has shifted slightly, making the place new to her eyes.